TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Beswick on Liability of Judges for Wrongful Imprisonment

Over at New Private Law Blog, Sam Beswick covers "The Liability of Judges for Wrongful Imprisonment."  The lede:

Last month, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Federal Court of Australia each gave judgments on lawsuits against sitting judges for abusing their contempt-of-court power. The US case arose after an Ohio Municipal Court Judge sentenced a spectator in his courtroom gallery to 10 days’ jail for refusing the judge’s unprompted demand that she take a drug test. She spent one night in prison during which she was subjected to pregnancy tests and full-body CAT scans. The Australian case concerned a Family Court judge in Queensland who began a hearing by accusing a self-represented litigant of not complying with disclosure orders, sentencing him to 12 months’ imprisonment in what the Federal Court characterized as “a gross parody of a court hearing” (¶129). The man spent a harrowing seven days in prison and became suicidal.

In both cases, the judges’ contempt orders were appealed and declared invalid. The Ohio Court of Appeals considered that the municipal judge had abused his discretion and violated the courtroom spectator’s due process rights. The Full Court of the Family Court of Australia described the Family Court judge’s hearing as “devoid of procedural fairness” and his order “an affront to justice” (¶9). The individuals in both cases sued the judges for their wrongful imprisonment. Their suits raised two issues: (1) whether the judges’ actions amounted to a violation of a right for which the plaintiffs had legal recourse; and (2) whether the judges’ judicial office immunized them from liability to the plaintiffs. The Sixth Circuit considered only issue (2) and dismissed the case before it as barred by the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. The case before the Australian Federal Court, by contrast, succeeded: judicial immunity was rejected and the judge was held personally liable to pay damages for the tort of false imprisonment.

In my view, these two cases illustrate a divergence in principle underscoring the liability of public officers generally to civil suit. I explore this idea in a forthcoming article examining claims against police and prison officers: whereas immunity principles drive the adjudication of such suits in the United States, the principle of equality under ordinary law is the jurisprudential starting point in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

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